Saturday 21 January 2017

Exclusive: Smurfit sets sights on Tiger Woods as Irish Open heads back to K Club

Dermot Gilleece

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:48

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods on the second tee during the final round at Augusta
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods on the second tee during the final round at Augusta

Michael Smurfit is set to bring next year’s Irish Open to The K Club by way of marking three significant anniversaries. With discussions at an advanced stage, he expects a deal to be completed within the next two months.

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Dr Smurfit has also confirmed to the Sunday Independent that he would be interested in having the event back at Straffan in 2018 and 2019, after the confirmed move back north, to Lough Erne in 2017.

His proposal for next year has the enthusiastic support of the title sponsors, Dubai Duty Free, who have close business links with The K Club through their sponsorship of the Irish Derby. The company’s chief, Colm McLoughlin, is also attracted by the logistical benefits of such a move, not least its proximity to Dublin Airport.

Dr Smurfit made these revelations to me on the phone from Monte Carlo within hours of the Royal County Down announcement last Thursday of highly attractive additions to this year’s Irish Open field. Patrick Reed, who formed such a formidable partnership with Jordan Spieth in last autumn’s Ryder Cup, has entered, along with Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald.

“There are three reasons why a staging next year holds considerable appeal for me,” said Dr Smurfit. “It happens to be the 25th anniversary of the opening of The K Club; the 10th anniversary of the Ryder Cup there; and I will be 80 on August 7 that year.

“Staging a European Tour event is an expensive undertaking, involving a cost of about €1m, but I am especially attracted by what Rory McIlroy is doing for the championship. I share his ambitions in wanting to develop it into a truly significant event and I really admire his personal investment in getting so many top players involved. Commercially, he is making it a hugely attractive proposition.”

As to whether this latest move was an effort at making up for the disappointment of not having landed the Irish Open in the past, Dr Smurfit responded: “Not really. The recession badly affected The K Club and effectively killed all the things we had been hoping for in the wake of the Ryder Cup. But now, seeing Ireland emerging from the depths of despair gives me great hopes for next year.”

In its halcyon days, The K Club hosted and sponsored 13 stagings of the European Open from 1995 to 2007, along with the Irish Professional Championship in 1992 and 1993 and the PGA Cup matches between GB & I and the US in 1992 and 2005.

Michael Smurfit: ‘Seeing Ireland emerging from the depths of despair gives me great hopes for next year’
Michael Smurfit: ‘Seeing Ireland emerging from the depths of despair gives me great hopes for next year’

Now, as part of its revival, the plan is for its chief executive, Michael Davern, to extend recent discussions with the European Tour with a view to “hammering out a deal” which would be finalised, ideally, by the end of June.

In this context, it may be no coincidence that a new 70-room extension to the hotel will be completed by next September. This is being done as a cost of €20m, which Dr Smurfit emphasised was “out of my own resources.” In other words, there will be no bank borrowings.

Given an emphasis on quality links terrain in the record-breaking staging at Royal Portrush in 2012 and this year’s move to Royal Co Down, The K Club would represent a significant departure from anticipated plans for next year. Indeed I understand that McIlroy had to be persuaded that, ultimately, it would be to the benefit of the Irish Open.

There is even a suggestion that Tiger Woods will participate. “In his younger days, he made regular visits to us in the company of Mark O’Meara,” said Dr Smurfit. “Obviously I would be delighted to see him back there competing and I’d be relying on Rory to persuade him.”

Such speculation is a measure of the tremendous upsurge in interest in the blue riband of the Irish game, which can be traced to the Royal Portrush staging three years ago. As a strategic move, it was intended to honour the achievements of northerners Graeme McDowell, McIlroy and Darren Clarke and now we are seeing the rich fruits of this gesture.

Royal Co Down on May 28-31 promises to be another memorable occasion, not least because of the current quality of the links. On a visit I made there last Thursday, it was already prepared to challenge the world’s best, especially in the quality of the greens which were, quite simply, magnificent. It is planned, incidentally, to have them running at a moderate 10.5 on the Stimpmeter during the championship, to protect the players against strong winds.

It was also confirmed by Antonia Beggs of the European Tour that daily attendances will be limited to 20,000 by way of achieving “what is best for the spectators and what is best for the club.” To this end, there will be 5,000 seats in strategic areas — a number previously unheard of at an Irish Open.

Sean O'Rourke and Michael Smurfit
Sean O'Rourke and Michael Smurfit

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